Booker's Place, Interviews

IINTERVIEW: Raymond De Felitta and Yvette Johnson talk Booker’s Place

By Wilson Morales [From] Playing at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival is an incredible documentary called ‘Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story,’ which is about an African-American waiter named Booker Wright, who gave an incredibly honest interview about racism in the south in 1965. In 1965, documentary filmmaker Frank DeFelitta traveled to Mississippi to shoot a film on the subject of racism in the American South. As he went about observing life in Mississippi and interviewing the locals, Frank was introduced to an African-American waiter named Booker Wright. With utter candor and a brazen lack of concern for his own well-being, Booker appeared on tape in the documentary and spoke openly and honestly about the realities of living in a racist society. This brief interview forever changed the lives of Booker and his family, and more than 40 years later, Frank’s son Raymond DeFelitta, who directed the Andy Garcia film ‘City Island,’ returns to the site of his father’s film to examine the repercussions of this fateful interview. “Booker’s Place” is playing as part of the Tribeca Film Festival April 22, 25, 26, 28, and opens at the Quad Cinema April 27. caught up with director Raymond DeFelitta and his co-producer and Booker Wright’s granddaughter Yvette Johnson as they spoke the journey they went on to discover more about Booker. When did you decide that you wanted to make a film about this footage your father shot? Raymond De Felitta: It all happened quite accidentally. I have a blog where I put up old films and old music and I’ve always been interested in these documentaries that my father made for NBC in the 1960’s and they are not available. You can’t see them. They are these great one hour time capsules of history of America in the 1960s. So I just started putting them on Youtube and posting them on my blog and figured that if anyone tells me to take them down, that’s fine. Meanwhile, maybe people will find them. There’s a civil rights documentary called ‘Mississippi: A Self Portrait,’ which I especially liked and I put it up and it snowballed. Yvette Johnson found footage of her grandfather, Booker Wright, who’s in the film. He’s amazing part of my father’s movie. He’s a black leader at a “white’s only” restaurant who gives a speech that is shocking and incendiary and quite amazing. It’s the centerpiece of my father’s film. Once Yvette found it, we started talking about going on this journey together and tried to find more about Booker Wright. Yvette, how long it was it before someone told you that there was this story about your grandfather and how long did it take to contact Raymond? Yvette Johnson: I found out about my grandfather being on a news program probably about five years ago and I too started a blog about my efforts to find him and the research I was doing. In my blog, I talked about how I was searching for this footage and Raymond’s producing partner gave me a call. I then met with Raymond and we had a long breakfast and the rest is history. As the two of you went on this journey, what were some the challenges that you came across trying to get people to talk about that time period? Raymond De Felitta: I did not know the southern United States at all. The closest I’d ever got to was Florida and Florida is typical and atypical of the south. Just going to Mississippi and going to the delta scene, the culture, and meeting the people was eye-opening and it was wonderful and that was fascinating. In a sense, I was looking at it through my father’s eyes. He was there making his film in 1965 and here we are, close to 50 years later, doing it again. I was also seeing it through very fresh eyes of my own. The south is a fascinating place and it was an incredible way to spend a lot of last year. With so much footage you have, what did you leave out in order to put together a film? Raymond De Felitta: It’s funny, because you go through a process making a documentary a little like you do when you’re sitting at home writing something and concentrating in your room. It’s only that you are doing it with a documentary with a film that you shot. You shoot a lot but you have a sense of what it is that you are looking for and later you tend to find that it’s maybe more about this. You starting looking at the footage again and you have to be ruthless about deciding on the narrative and the message that you want to convey and anything that doesn’t support that has to come out. Yvette could speak to this as well because she was with me every step of the way. There were so many interesting people that we spoke to and there’s not a hint of them in the film. Why is Mississippi the state with the most ties to racial tension? Raymond De Felitta: Actually, Florida has recently taken Mississippi’s place. I don’t know. People from Mississippi also struggle with that question. They have a certain humor about their state. I just found out that prohibition existed in Mississippi until the 1970s. It was illegal to sell liquor well until the 1970s if you could believe that. I asked a Greenwood resident why did that take so long and he said, “We’re Mississippi and we’re last in everything.” That’s their attitude, which is wonderful. They know they are a strange bunch. Yvette Johnson, what has been the reception you’ve received from folks as you did research about your grandfather? Yvette Johnson: I have to say that my experience of being in Greenwood and meeting people, blacks who grew up and knew Booker’s Place and who knew my grandfather was emotional. Also, with whites, who as children, their families knew about the restaurant. That was the most popular restaurant in Greenwood during those days. I was really embraced. I think what was beautiful was that so many who lived in Greenwood during the time that my grandfather was there had a story about him. They had their own personal Booker Wright experience. He’s been dead for almost 40 years. I think for them and for me, it was a chance for me to see him through their eyes and it was a chance for them to have one more moment with him when they were with me. It was actually beautiful. It was not at all what I was expecting. As a filmmaker who just made a personal discovery, where do you go from here? Raymond De Felitta: I have made two documentaries and four narratives and I never set out to think of myself as a personal filmmaker, but now as I look back and I’ve been doing for 20 years, and they are all personal films. Whether they are as historically based as this and I’ve made a couple of comedies, but they are all personal films. One way or another, I’m interested in telling a story that shows a central character, a man usually, who’s confronted with a moment in their life where everything changes. To me, it’s the human story. It’s the universal story and Booker has that moment in this movie. Yvette, how about you? Yvette Johnson: Well, I’m doing a couple of things. My goal for this story is people don’t realize how little they know about how life was blacks back in that era, and with this knowledge (through the film), it helps them with the way they view racism today. I’m working on a book to help with that perspective and I have a blog where I’m hoping where people can come and learn about race in America that’s not mentioned in the mainstream. This film is not really about civil rights or about the south, but about those things through the lens of one man.